Nationals suing insurance company over ‘Smiley Gonzalez’ signing bonus

The Nationals are suing an insurance company in an effort to recover $1 million of the signing bonus they gave to a fraudulent Dominican prospect in 2006. The suit reveals new details in the case of the shortstop once known as Smiley Gonzalez, a saga that still lingers more than four years after his identify fraud led to widespread upheaval within the Nationals’ organization.

In 2006, the Nationals signed 16-year-old shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez with a $1.4 million signing bonus. In 2009, it was revealed that Gonzalez lied about his identity and his age – his name was Carlos David Alvarez Lugo, and he was four years older than he claimed. His value as a ballplayer evaporated, and the Nationals ultimately fired General Manager Jim Bowden and his special assistant in charge of Latin America, Jose Rijo.

The Nationals are now trying to recoup the money they spent signing Lugo, who, incredibly, has played this season in the team’s minor league system. In their complaint against Westchester Fire Insurance Company, the Nationals make a claim that validates a long-speculated belief: the player once known as Smiley kicked back part of his signing bonus to Rijo.

“Lugo executed an affidavit detailing his fraud, including that he kicked back $300,000 of his bonus to Jose Rijo,” the complaint reads.

Attempts to reach Rijo were unsuccessful. In January 2011, Rijo told The Washington Post that he had not received any payment from Alvarez.

“Nobody ever said that I took money from him or that I changed his [expletive] age,” Rijo said then. “Nobody can ever do that, because it never happened. It never happened. I don’t even know that kid.”

In July 2012, Rijo, the 1990 World Series MVP, was charged in the Dominican Republic with money laundering for a suspected drug trafficker.

The Nationals’ current lawsuit pertains only to Westchester, a Philadelphia-based insurance company. The Nationals, according to the suit, entered into a $1 million contract with Westchester. The Nationals submitted a claim for “an incident of employee theft and fraud” following the revelation that Alvarez had faked his age and identity.

The Nationals, who are represented in the case by D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly, claim Westchester “denied the claim without reasonable basis and only after dragging its feet and delaying its investigation for months.”

“Had they known Lugo’s true age and identity at the time, more likely than not, the Nationals would have paid Lugo no bonus at all,” the suit reads. “The $1.4 million signing bonus thus represented a complete loss resulting from the employee dishonesty, theft, and fraud of Rijo, Jose Baez [the Nationals’ former director of operations in the Dominican Republic], and Lugo.”

Alvarez, now 27, appears to remain in the organization, at least nominally. The Nationals placed him on the disabled list earlier this season and he has been on a rehab assignment in the Gulf Coast League, the lowest rung of the minors. He appeared in two games, each time as a pinch-hitter, for the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League affiliate. In his first at-bat, Alvarez hit a home run. In his second, he struck out.

The Washington Business Journal first reported the suit.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.

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James Wagner · August 12, 2013